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May 30

movie log: The Wind (1928)

Posted on Saturday, May 30, 2009 in movies

Seen April 23, 2009: The Wind, a silent movie from 1928 directed by Victor Sjöström, starring Lillian Gish, Lars Hanson, Edward Earle, Dorothy Cumming, Montague Love.

Gish plays Letty, a woman who is moving from her home in the green eastern US to live with her cousin Beverly (Edward Earle) in dry, windy, dusty Texas. On the train she meets a man Wirt Roddy (Love) who flirts with her and warns her that the wind will drive her crazy. She arrives to find cousin Beverly’s wife Cora (Cumming) most unwelcoming. Cora is perhaps a bit touched in the head, and at any rate is hostile towards and jealous of Letty. She insists that she won’t share her house or her husband, and Letty is forced into marriage with Lige (Lars Hanson), a decent man but a man that she doesn’t love.

The main character is, as the title suggests, the wind, which blows and shifts the dry sand around through the starkness of the territory and the hard-living people trying to survive it. Into this setting Roddy shows up again, his evil lust for Letty pushing him to her as she is being driven mad by the weather and her situation.

This is a wonderful movie. I’ve seen it before, but in this instance I saw it in the theater, as part of a silent movie program of monthly showings in Manchester NH and in Wilton NH. This one was at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, with (as with all in this series) live music composed and performed by Jeff Rapsis. The film was preceded by a short interview with Gish done some decades later (as it was the other time I saw it; probably drawn from the same source DVD). Gish talked about how the production used an array of aircraft engines and propellers to generate the wind when needed, and about how the weather was so hot that at one point she burned the skin off of a hand while opening a door. Unfortunately she also talked about the ending – this featurette should be seen after watching the movie, not before.

While some of this movie is quite over the top (especially the bits about the wind having an alter ego as a wild stallion), it is highly enjoyable, one of the best silent films I know of. To some degree you have to have some experience with and get a feeling for silent movies before you can appreciate and enjoy them, especially the longer dramatic ones. But I’ve often felt that this is one that can be enjoyed without any such background.

May 22

movie log: Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Posted on Friday, May 22, 2009 in movies

Viewed March 21, 2009 and then again April 18, 2009: Synechdoche, New York written and directed by Charlie Kaufman, starring too many people in too many significant roles to list right here – notably among them Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Tom Noonan, Diane Wiest – but I’d better stop.

This movie stunned me, to the point where (kind of a silly measure, I suppose), I couldn’t even make an entry about it here until I saw it again, and then after that until I could figure out how to use words to describe it. I still haven’t arrived at that point, so I’ll just push on inadequately.

“Synecdoche” is a word that rhymes, more or less, with Schenectady, which is a city in New York where the movie opens. It (the word) is a grammatical term referring to the use of a word or phrase having a broad scope in place of one included in that scope, or vice versa; where, for example, “wheels” might refer to a car, or “Washington” to the government located in that city. And the movie is, in part, about substitution – not necessarily about that kind, but not excluding it either – and about reference and reflection and cause and effect.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Caden Cotard (a referential name in itself), a theater professional who, at the outset, is involved in directing a version of “Death of a Salesman.” He’s cast a young man as the aging Willy Loman, and at one point tells the actor that this casting will add to the pathos since the audience will know that the young actor can imagine himself getting old – a concept that has to be imagined by and reflected in the minds of simultaneous participants (director, actor, audience, playwright) in order to have any meaning. This is kind of a throw-away line but it’s a hint of things to come.

Cotard begins working on a grand piece of theater. He is going to recreate elements of life – or more particularly, of his life, although here again one is a substitute for the other – by staging them inside a huge theater. One assumes that he initially intends there to be an audience, but this performance can not possibly be viewed – it can only be experienced by the participants, and indeed since this becomes part of his life, those experiences modify and affect him, which means they have to be reflected in the performance. The project becomes a model of real life – his and others. More and more, what happens inside the model affects what happens outside. The project becomes self-referential, self-modifying, and recursive, to the point where there’s no hard lines between the model and the reality.

The theater project is a large part of Cotard’s life and of this movie, but not all. As the years pass (something like 60 of them) his life changes; he meets a number of people, mainly women (one wonders how much they are parts of himself or he of them). He goes through various family and personal relationships most of which are, of course, reflected in and affected by his project. Time does not always move clearly or at a sensible rate; characters’ thoughts are affected by their surroundings, but those surroundings are perplexingly affected by their thoughts in turn. Things stand in for each other. (It may or may not be intentional that in one scene where Cotard is talking to his therapist, played by Hope Davis, that he uses the word “hope” more than once – perhaps in a minor way carrying this theme one level out beyond the movie.)

The movies that Charlie Kaufman has written – at least the ones that I’ve seen – always seem to be about interactions between the mind and reality. I admit I haven’t always liked them, but it’s also true that I’ve liked each successive one more. Either he’s getting better at it or it’s getting through to me. Here, where he’s directed his own work, I think he’s gotten it just about perfect. The depth and complexity are, shall I say it again? stunning. Bear in mind that I’ve left out a lot; I’ve only got so much disk space for this entry.

See it. See it and repeat.

Apr 4

movie log: Transamerica (2005)

Posted on Saturday, April 4, 2009 in movies

Watched March 16, 2009: Transamerica directed by Duncan Tucker, starring Felicity Huffman and Kevin Zegers.

Huffman plays Bree Osbourne – whose given name is Stanley – a man about to go through gender reassignment surgery (i.e. to become a woman). At about the last possible moment, she receives a phone call from a teenager named Toby (Zegers) who his looking for his father Stanley. It seems that Stanley had slept with a woman in college who had, unbeknownst to him, become pregnant and given birth to Toby. Bree’s counselor (played by Elizabeth Peña) will not give her required permission for the surgery until Bree resolves, or apparently at least investigates, this new conflict in her life. Bree travels from LA to New York to find that she has to bail Toby out of jail for prostitution. Through a series of minor events, both Bree and Toby end up driving an old dilapidated car across country to get to LA, with Toby having no idea that the woman he sees next to him in the car is really his father.

At this point it just becomes a road trip movie. As with any road trip movie, the characters encounter a number of odd characters, get into scrapes, have the inevitable misunderstandings, hatred, bonding, soul-searching, and truth-finding. The issues of Bree’s sexuality and her hatred of her male body versus Toby’s overactive exploitation of his do come up, but not, in general, with any deep social commentary, but most often are merely factors contributing to the road trip formula. Indeed, not overly obsessing on the social and moral issues can be seen as saying something: that these are just elements in these peoples’ lives, lives that have troubles and emotions and difficulties that we can relate to just as if they were caused by anything else. You can point, for example, to the fact that Bree’s issues of sexual identity alienate her from her parents. In another universe, or with other people, that alienation would come from other causes, and the story could play out much as it does here. Except, I think, for the acting. Felicity Huffman does a great job playing a man who is becoming a woman, and I would recommend seeing this movie just for that.

The always-enjoyable Graham Green makes an appearance as a man who helps the couple out while taking a shine to Bree; Burt Young and Fionnula Flanagan do a nice job as Bree’s parents.

Apr 4

movie log: The Trials of Ted Haggard (2009)

Posted on Saturday, April 4, 2009 in movies

Viewed March 14, 2009: The Trials of Ted Haggard – a made-for-HBO documentary directed by Alexandra Pelosi.

Ted Haggard is the founder of the New Life Church in Colorado; director Pelosi had met him while making previous documentaries and had grown to like him. After Haggard had fallen from grace (he had admitted to a homosexual encounter in which there were drug-related overtones) and had been kicked out of the church that he founded, Pelosi ran into him again. Evidently she palled around with him for a while and, being a filmmaker, pretty much always had a camera trained on him. After some time she had enough decent material to make this documentary. One story says that she used that obnoxious old “it’s better to seek forgiveness than to ask permission” canard – and she may have said that, but from what I’ve read she actually showed the film to the Haggards and they OK’d it.

The film follows Haggard as he lives his life of banishment, moving himself and his family from one temporary living space to another, seeking work, trying (and evidently failing) his hand as a door-to-door insurance salesperson, going to school with hopes of becoming a counselor, all the while hoping for and looking forward to the time when he can move back to his big house in Colorado and perhaps find favor again with his church. This is the backdrop for the running reflections that he has on his life in conversation with Pelosi.

There is irony a-plenty – not just for Haggard, but for the viewer and perhaps even for Pelosi. Haggard comes across as a really likeable guy, honestly struggling to find answers in his life (some might say honestly struggling to be wrong). He’s so likeable that one looks for ways to rationalize his past hypocritical teachings against homosexuality. I think in anyone’s world there are things you can believe and do only in private- in his world you would be an outcast not to speak out against them. (Just to be clear: this is the sort of rationalization I’m referring to.) One hears him saying how much he personally gained from psychological counseling, which is why he talks of pursuing it, and yet he continues to pour over the Bible to find comfort (one sequence has him walking in the desert with his Bible – I suppose Pelosi couldn’t resist throwing that in.) When asked if he still finds meaning in the Bible, he says yes: but that the meaning is very different if you’re on top of the world than it is when you’re at the bottom.

A very watchable documentary, showing the human side of a guy that it’s easy to dislike from a distance but harder to up close. People are funny like that.

Mar 13

movie log: The Strong Man (1926)

Posted on Friday, March 13, 2009 in movies

Seen March 5, 2009: The Strong Man directed by Frank Capra, starring Harry Langdon, Priscilla Bonner, Gertrude Astor, and Arthur Thalasso.

This was shown on the big screen at the Palace Theatre in Manchester, NH, with live music composed and performed by Jeff Rapsis, who is one of the people behind the program of silent films shown at the Palace and at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton NH. The film was preceded by two shorts (which I’m tempted to give their own blog entries, but let’s just do this):

    1926’s Circus Today with Billy Bevan and Andy Clyde – 20 minutes of pretty funny antics at a circus with two men, a woman, and a lion – all of whom end up inside a cabin suspended by a hot air balloon.

  • 1923’s It’s a Gift with Snub Pollard – Pollard is an inventor called upon by oil executives to help them out with their oil problems. There are some good bits about Pollard’s Rube Goldberg lifestyle, and you’ve probably seen clips from this film where he travels around in his little cart pointing a magnet at passing cars to achieve locomotion.

As to the main feature (which was, by the way, Frank Capra’s directorial debut): Paul Bergot (played by Harry Langdon) is a Belgian soldier in WWI who receives love letters on the battlefield from Mary Brown (Bonner) of the US. All that Bergot knows of her is from her letters and the one picture he clings to. He’s captured by a German soldier (Thalasso) and, at war’s end, becomes the assistant of the German, a strongman who goes by the name of Zandow the Great – both ending up in the US. Most of the rest of the film concerns Bergot’s efforts to locate Mary Brown while performing with Zandow. The quest begins in the city, where Bergot is hilariously involved with a woman with criminal associations. It ends up in a frontier town that has been taken over by gangsters, to the dismay of the town’s religous community led by Pastor Brown (whom, you may have guessed, is Mary’s father). There’s a wild confrontation between all factions, with Bergot on the stage subbing for drunken Zandow, the gang of criminals in the audience, and the holy townspeople making the last of 7 days’ marches around the saloon whereafter they hope, as with Jericho, the walls will come tumbling down.

Harry Langdon was one of the bright comedy stars of the 20s, but by most accounts he didn’t understand the degree to which outside direction and help from others led to his success, and he made choices that almost instantly wiped out his career. It’s a shame, because he was one funny guy, with a style all his own, and he could have left a much fuller legacy. In this film he displays a gentleness of motion, a meek stubbornness, and comic athleticism that is extremely entertaining. There’s never a dull moment in this movie, and I’d love to see it again.

Mar 7

movie log: Zero Hour! (1957)

Posted on Saturday, March 7, 2009 in movies

Watched March 1, 2009: Zero Hour! directed by Hall Bartlett, starring Dana Andrews, Linda Darnell, and Sterling Hayden.

Zero Hour!, story by Arthur Hailey (of “Airport” fame), is the movie that was later remade as the fantastic comedy Airplane!. Ted Stryker (Andrews) was a WWII fighter pilot who had made a critical mistake that cost the lives of some of his men. Psychologically scarred, he can’t find work and his marriage is in trouble. One day he comes home to find that his wife Ellen (Darnell) has left him, taking their son Joey on a flight westward across Canada to Vancouver. Stryker summons up his courage and boards the airplane to try to convince her to stay. But trouble looms: food poisoning strikes down the pilot and co-pilot, and Stryker – the only man aboard with any flying experience – must bring the plane safely down, guided on the radio by his former commander Martin Treleaven (Hayden), who is sure that Stryker will fail.

This was not my first viewing, but I had seen Airplane! many times before having seen this film for the first time. While Airplane! also borrows from others and adds a lot to the mix, most of the basic elements are here; there’s even a sports star, Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, playing the role of pilot. If you’re familiar with Airplane! (and probably anybody who sees Zero Hour! nowadays is) then watching this movie is a bit of a dissociative experience. You follow the story, you hear familiar lines said in dead-serious tones, you want to laugh – you do laugh. You hear lines that nobody says, and you laugh at those. You think Sterling Hayden does a great impression of Robert Stack. It’s an entirely different experience than was originally intended, altogether. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to see this movie first; would it be memorable, or would it just be seen and vaguely remembered? Perhaps being remade as Airplane! has given this movie a longer, although different, life that it might have had. Surely that’s not a bad thing.

But if you like Airplane!, spend 80 minutes and watch this, maybe with some friends. That’s just what they’ll be expecting you to do.

Mar 6

movie log: Definitely, Maybe (2008)

Posted on Friday, March 6, 2009 in movies

Seen February 28, 2009: Definitely, Maybe directed by Adam Brooks, starring Ryan Reynolds, Abigail Breslin, Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz, Isla Fisher, and a bunch of others.

This is a light romantic movie with a contrived plot that immediately makes one think of the TV series “How I Met Your Mother.” The movie begins with Will Hayes (Reynolds) about to be divorced from his wife. His precocious daughter Maya (Breslin) is full of questions: don’t you love her? how can you get divorced? Will tells her that in order to understand, she’d have to know the story of how he met three women, one of whom was the mother. And he’ll tell her the story, but she’ll have to try to figure out which one he ended up marrying. The bulk of the movie follows this story as he tells it.

And it’s an OK story, even if one can’t believe he’s telling it to his daughter (nor in the detail that we see, although by her reactions we’re led to believe that this detail is included in his telling of it). The three women are played by Elizabeth Banks, Rachel Weisz, and Isla Fisher, and there are good performances by others including Adam Ferrara and Kevin Kline.

My biggest reaction to this film was that it’s great to see Ryan Reynolds get a decent role in a decent movie. Why an old geezer like me here in the wilds of NH has any interest in seeing a particular actor do well is probably a good question, but I’ve always rooted for Reynolds; let’s hope there’s more to come. The movie is very watchable, although I’m not sure I’m exactly the target audience. I didn’t really buy the premise or the specifics of the conversation between father and daughter, or other stuff between them that I won’t get into, but I just put that aside. There’s no deep meaning or lasting effect to be had here, just a couple of entertaining hours.

Mar 6

movie log: Leap Year (1921)

Posted on Friday, March 6, 2009 in movies

Viewed February 27, 2009: Leap Year directed by James Cruze and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, staring Fatty Arbuckle and a host of others.

This is approximately an hour-long feature with Arbuckle playing Stanley Piper, the nephew of and heir to an irascible old coot, and thus viewed in universe of this film as a rare catch for the ladies. As the film opens, Stanley has taken a shine to his uncle’s nurse, but he has a hard time telling her this for various reasons (for one, he has a nervous stutter that keeps him from expressing his complete thoughts). Coincidentally the misogynist uncle decides he’d rather have a male nurse and fires this one. The uncle goes off to a spa in hopes of healing his gout, while Stanley takes a trip to Catalina. As the movie progresses, Stanley meets one beautiful woman after another, and tries to cozy up to each in turn in order to get advice about approaching the nurse (remember her?). Due to his nervousness and stutter, each woman thinks that he’s trying to confess his love to her and, because he’s such prime husband material, immediately accepts his alleged offer of marriage.

They all – Stanley, his uncle, the nurse, all of these other woman, each man that has an interest in each woman – end up back at the uncle’s house, where great farcical maneuvers ensue.

This really is quite a funny old movie, and it moves along at a good clip. Then again I’ve never really seen a Fatty Arbuckle movie that I didn’t enjoy.

Mar 3

movie log: Right America: Feeling Wronged (2009)

Posted on Tuesday, March 3, 2009 in movies

Viewed February 22, 2009: Right America: Feeling Wronged – Some Voices from the Campaign Trail, a made-for-HBO documentary directed by Alexandra Pelosi.

This is one of a number of exposés of right-wing subjects by Alexandra Pelosi (daughter of Nancy Pelosi, current Speaker of the House of Representatives). An earlier documentary, Friends of God…, was entertaining and illuminating to the max, and I’m looking forward to seeing her The Trials of Ted Haggard soon. In this film, she travels around some conservative areas in the US to get man-on-the-street style interviews with people who voted for McCain in the recent presidential election, in order to get their reaction to their candidate’s loss. Those she gets, or at least the ones she shows, range from idiotic to moronic, passing through outright racist.

I have mixed reactions to this film. On one side, one just sits there jaw-droppingly dumbfounded at the things people are saying to the camera. Many of the old canards are paraded out: Obama will take the oath of office on the Koran, his middle name is Hussein, he refuses to take the Pledge of Allegiance, a black person (and worse words are used) should never be President, and more. Perhaps worse, many people are completely unable to produce an argument behind their position at all, and often not even a sentence. There are a few people who make reasoned statements, but the memory of them is blotted out by most of the others. On the other side, one wonders if Pelosi is simply setting up her ducks and shooting them down: I suspect (in fact, am pretty sure) you can find lots of ignorant and hateful people on any side – people who have political alignments they can’t justify and beliefs they can’t explain – and indeed get-out-the-vote drives sometimes seemed aimed at hustling them up. One thing you have to give her: she certainly plumbed the depths on the side she was going after. This may not be exactly educational, but it sure is watchable. It brings to mind that Churchill quote that’s you see behind every position these days, that “the biggest argument against democracy is a five minute discussion with the average voter.” And having cited it, I too can feel all superior.

Mar 3

movie log: The Legend of 1900 (1998)

Posted on Tuesday, March 3, 2009 in movies

Viewed February 21, 2009: The Legend of 1900 directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, starring Tim Roth and Pruitt Taylor Vince, and featuring Bill Nunn and Clarence Williams III.

This is the story – a fantasy, really – told in flashback reminiscences by musician Max Tooney (Vince) about a man who was abandoned as a baby aboard a passenger liner in the year 1900. He is found by coal stoker Danny Boodmann (played by Bill Nunn) on top of a grand piano in the ship’s luxurious ballroom. As it’s the beginning of a new century (geeks, you’ll have to get past the fact that it really isn’t) Boodmann christens the boy “1900” and raises him aboard ship. Time elapses, Boodmann passes on; one day the boy 1900 wanders into the ballroom, sits down at piano, and displays an innate talent. More time goes on and 1900, now grown into a man (played by Tim Roth) wows the first-class passengers who gather nightly in the ballroom. In all this time, 1900 has never left the ship, yet his reputation has spread. His life is remembered in episodes, some dramatic, some romantic, some poignant. In one, famed musician Jelly Roll Morton (Clarence Williams III), self-proclaimed inventor of jazz, takes a trip on the ship just so he can prove his superiority to 1900. The contest between them, about midway through the film, with 1900 producing a Leo Ornstein -like performance, is not to be missed. One assumes that the filmmakers have taken some liberties with the character of the real Jelly Roll Morton; you just have to treat it as poetic license. And they did use some of Morton’s music in the contest.

This is my third viewing of this movie, and it’s just a wonderful film. In my mini-review of “Angel-A” I referred to that film as a fairy tale for adults – a friend suggested that that tag might apply to this movie as well.

Other than a few sequences (such as the above-mentioned piano contest), this is a deliberately-paced (read: slow) movie, which may put off some viewers who demand action and fast cars and explosions (OK, so there are some explosions in this film). While my tastes generally run to the more deliberate movies, even I would say that the second half of this film could use some tightening. But then again: the version I’ve seen is the US release which runs 125 minutes. The original release was 35 minutes longer than that, and I suspect that any problem that I have with the editing of this film stems from the fact that so much was removed from it. I’d love to see the longer version and compare.